Written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon and Claude Sautet; Dialogue by Pierre Gascar
Directed by George Franju
Pierre Brasseur: Docteur Genessier
Alida Valli: Louise
Edith Scob: Christiane Genessier
Juliette Mayniel: Edna Grueber
I apologize in advance for all the mangling of the French language and ignorance of Gallic culture that is about to occur. Other than a Jean Rollin film about contaminated wine causing psychotic behavior I haven't seen any French horror films, and I don't know how to make accent marks on Blogger. Please accept my sincerest apologies for any offensively terrible gaps in knowledge or atrocious spelling. Right now the image in my mind as I type these words is Dennis Farina in Bottle Shock, speaking above-average tourist French with a two-mile-wide Chicago accent.
While I'm in a True Confessions mood, I'm referring to this movie by its Anglicized title so I can watch it for HubrisWeen. A substantial fraction of the point of doing this marathon--at least for me--is being able to watch a big pile of movies I've been meaning to get around to. And I really doubt that I'll be able to top Scott "El Santo" Ashlin's one-line summary of the movie: "What might have happened if The Brain that Wouldn’t Die hadn’t been stupid?". But onward I must go, because Santo's been doing reviews for more than a decade and he got to that priceless summary first.
My first impression: Oh, wow, Herk Harvey has to have seen this one. It starts with stark black and white scenery of a forest at night, filmed from a moving car and accompanied by incongruously jaunty circus organ music. The trees are nearly spindly enough to make me think the scene was filmed in Tim Burton's living brain. A woman is driving a tiny European car through the rain; a slumped figure in the back seat is sleeping. She is overtaken by a truck going much faster than her car. Eventually the woman parks her car (which looks like a sight gag to my American eyes used to SUVs and land yachts) next to a river, drags the body out of her back seat--now obviously a corpse in clothing, not a slumbering person--and dumps the body in with a muted splash. She returns to the car; not a single word has been spoken in this scene.
We then cut to an audience at a lecture being given by a professor; he's talking about the "heterograft"--a medical technique that would allow living tissue from one person to be transferred to another; specifically, the ability to do this with people who are not a genetic match (which is something barely possible in 2014 and requires a lifelong regimen of immune-system suppressing drugs). The audience is politely interested and looks to be dressed for a night at the opera rather than a medicinal TED talk. I also don't imagine that talking about exposing the donor of skin or organs to radiation and then exsanguinating them--leaving them completely drained of blood--would be much of an applause line, but then again I already confessed how little I know about French culture. Regardless, it would seem that you could only do a successful heterograft by killing the owner twice over--once with the massive dose of radiation meant to make their bodily materials capable of being transplanted, and once by draining them of their blood.
The lecture ends and the professor beats feet immediately, his host tells him that there was a call from the morgue while he was speaking and they want to get in touch with him as soon as possible. That's probably not going to be good news when he gets back in touch with them. He leaves the lecture rather abruptly and one of the people who attended says that the professor hasn't been the same since his daughter vanished.
We then get an interlude at the swankest office in history, with a Dr. Lehrmenier and Detective Parot discussing the body that has been retrieved from the Seine river--a young woman with massive injuries to her face, nude in a men's overcoat and further deteriorated from immersion in the water ("and don't forget the rats", says the policeman. Brrrrrr). The two men discussing the body mention that another girl from the area has gone missing, and while they assume that it's Docteur Genessier's daughter Christiane, it might also be the other woman, who went missing recently. Both the doctor and the father of the other missing woman are scheduled to view the body. Oh, and in case things didn't sound odd enough yet, the massive open wound on the body's face had neat, clean edges--as if someone had trimmed the horribly damaged skin with a scalpel.
Dr. Genessier arrives at the morgue (and there's a great shot of him walking slowly down a corridor, flanked by the other doctor and the detective, with a sort of stoic fatalism on him face while everyone's footsteps echo). The director does a great job of making the identification room look like a place you don't want to get to but you have to go--the alchemy of sound and image that makes a dolly shot of a door in a hallway look ominous and literally dreadful. When he does get to the room, Genessier identifies the body on the gurney as that of his missing daughter; Dr. Lehrmenier says there's no need to bring in the other man to see if his own missing daughter is in the morgue room.
And that man, Henri Tessot, is waiting outside the police station; he accosts Dr. Genessier and asks if he's absolutely sure that it's not Tessot's daughter Simone inside on the gurney--his daughter has been missing for more than a week and Henri is positive that something horrible has happened to her. And a few pieces click together for the viewer at Christiane's funeral, because standing next to the professor outside the Genessier family mausoleum is his secretary Louise, who is also the woman who dumped the faceless body in the Seine at the start of the film.
Dr. Genessier stays behind at the cemetery after all the other mourners have left, and leaves a wreath on his daughter's coffin. His secretary says that she can't take it any more and in the manner of all leading men in the pre-Beatles era, Genessier slaps her. But...things don't fit together here. I can buy being shaken and not wanting to think about it if you've ditched a dead body in a river. I can buy being stoic while burying your daughter (and one of the mourners mentions that Genessier's wife died four years earlier--he's the only one left from his family now). But I can't figure out how those things can be true at the same time. The emotional states of a grieving father and a nervous accomplice don't seem to jell in this scene at all, and it's probably fortunate for the doctor and Louise that they were inside a stone burial vault and weren't observed by anyone when this scene went down because it looks suspicious as hell, even if I'm not sure what I'm suspecting.
When Genessier and Louise return to his estate (the "no admittance" sign is backed up by the barking of several offscreen but vicious-sounding dogs; the doctor is apparently very serious about his privacy), things get weirder and start to make a bit more sense. It looks like Christiane isn't nearly as dead as the official black-bordered newspaper obituary with her name on it would suggest. The doctor gives her a paternally lecturing conversation about how things will make sense in the future, and that he did what he had to do. And he says everything he did was for Christiane's own good. Of course all of that sounds evil, but the viewer also cannot help noticing that Christiane is lying down on her bed with her face pressed into a pillow even while talking to her father (and while not muffling her voice probably isn't the most realistic thing in the world for this scene, I'm glad in retrospect that the filmmakers didn't do that--it'd be silly and distracting right when things should be disquieting instead).
When Christiane raises her head from the pillow (still unseen by the audience), Genessier scolds her for not wearing her mask, and tells her that she needs to get into the habit of wearing it until another operation succeeds. So--Henri Tessot's daughter had her face cut off in a heterograft procedure, died at some point, and had her body thrown in the Seine like garbage as part of Genessier's scheme to conceal his crimes. But the promise he makes to his daughter isn't to keep from killing anyone else, it's that he swears he'll succeed in restoring her features. Eventually.
A heart-to-heart between Christiane and Louise reveals a little more of their pasts--Louise is a living success story for Dr. Genessier and his plastic surgery techniques. Christiane doesn't think that her father can repair the damage to her features, because she literally does not have them any more. And despite all the mirrors in the estate having been taken away, there are enough shiny surfaces in the mansion that Christiane can still see herself from time to time; she's terrified and revolted every time she catches a glimpse of herself, but hates the blank-featured mask her father wants her to wear until a successful heterograft is performed even more. Christiane also says that her injuries are the result of her father's aggressive driving habits and she thinks he's lying to her about the chances of repairing her face because he can't admit to anyone (especially himself) that her irreversible deformity is his own fault.
The mask that Christiane wears is incredibly striking--nearly blank female features and chalk-white; watching her express emotions with her eyes (which survived the car accident) makes for an amazing contrast between the protective shell and the girl trapped inside it. And she's obviously starved for human connection and company, as shown by the sequence where she looks at a picture of her fiancee (who believes her to be dead) and calls him up just to hear his voice.
Time passes, and Louise strikes up a friendship with Edna, a less well-off young woman, offering her a free theater ticket (the old "my friend hasn't shown up and it'll just go to waste" ploy) and then claiming to have found her an inexpensive room in the city. It's not the most surprising development in the world when Louise brings her new friend to a familiar stone mansion with angry barking dogs patrolling the grounds. Some small talk about the suitability of the room and the inconvenient distance from the suburbs to Paris itself get cut short when Dr. Genessier chloroforms the student; Louise and the doctor carry Edna out of the parlor while Christiane watches from afar (and check out the play of shadow and light over her mask as she walks down the stairs in this scene--it's very striking).
The two abductors move the unconscious woman into a surgery concealed behind a secret door in the garage and Genessier talks about how his new plan involves taking one massive piece from the donor instead of several sections, and that he'll be ready to operate after dinner. Christiane watches this from behind a car, looking like a ghost haunting her own life in flowing white and wearing the blank white mask--and I think the director and cinematographer are using the placement of the camera as a way to evoke emotions from Edith Scob's silent and ethereal performance, because the mask isn't able to do anything on that score but you still get a sense of how she feels in a given scene. Genessier's matter-of-fact pondering about how to best remove a girl's face in this scene is more chilling than a ranting mad scientist would be. He's clearly insane but it's a much colder and rational psychosis than one normally gets in movies about lethal medical experiments.
While the doctor tucks into a nice hot beef bourguignon, Christiane wanders through more of the tunnels by the estate's garage, eventually finding herself in a room with more than a dozen dogs in metal cages; at last, the source of all that barking. And it's very telling that none of the dogs bark at her; every one she goes near whimpers or pants but none of them display even the slightest aggression towards the masked girl. When she gets into the surgery and strokes the sleeping victim's face, the bound and sedated girl wakes up and she (along with the audience) gets a blurry view of what's left of Christiane's visage. She screams in terror and the maimed girl retreats sadly into the shadows.
In the operating theater, Genessier marks a circle on the sleeping Edna's face (and whatever they were allowed to show in 1960 in Europe or not, seeing that matter-of-fact incision guideline scribed on a human face made my skin crawl in dreadful anticipation). The surgery scene itself is a master class in editing and blocking, with the primitive makeup effects enhanced immeasurably by the two actors' bodies and hands interposed between the camera and Juliette Mayniel's face. Shots of Genessier's masked face interrupt the sequence periodically, giving the filmmakers an excuse to swap out different makeup appliances during the scene as well. And the physical performance builds on the horror as well--Genessier and Louise have to work quickly and don't have time to be considerate or delicate. I cringed a lot during the tendon-severing scene. And when it becomes apparent that Genessier is going to pull the victim's face off, that development is foreshadowed by alternating closeups between the doctor and his assistant, each cut showing a closer and closer look at the masked and capped faces (with Genessier's eyes framed by the round lenses of his glasses as well). The scene ends with a merciful fade to black just before the audience can see Edna's flayed skull.
While the audience recovers from that shock, we get a little bit of exposition about what the heck Genessier is doing with a room full of caged dogs. He apparently rescues pets abandoned by their owners, but judging from how he treats them he doesn't even like them that much. And based on how the dogs bark at him (rather than the quiet affection shown towards Christiane), the canines aren't fond of him either.
In the kennel, Genessier and Louise discuss Christiane's prognosis; apparently she's healing well and eating more than she has in some time; for all that she must hate what's been done in her name, the prospect of not wanting to shriek or gag when catching sight of herself in a mirror has to be a powerful goad to the devil on her shoulder. And Genessier says that Edna is to be cared for and fed; apparently he did not take the easiest way out and kill her after stripping the face off of her skull. Sure, now he remembers "first, do no harm" is part of the Hippocratic Oath. And fat lot of good keeping Edna alive does in the end, because she jumps from the highest window she can find once she manages to overpower Louise and get out of her recovery room / cell. Genessier takes quite a risk sneaking into the cemetery in the dead of night to inter Edna's body in the family vault. That's also got the be the first time I've seen a graverobbing deposit in a mad science movie instead of a withdrawal.
Just as the first victim's disappearance did not go unnoticed, Edna's got a friend who misses her and goes to the police after her abduction. She doesn't know Louise's name and can't give more than a general description, but does remember the choker that Louise habitually wears (which turns out to be covering an awful scar that Genessier was unable to treat). And a pair of police detectives have noticed multiple beautiful young blue-eyed students that have gone missing in Paris recently. Even worse (to their minds), Edna is from Switzerland and there's bound to be diplomatic complications and problems from their own superiors as well as people from the Swiss embassy. They've got plenty of incentives to try and solve the disappearances.
Back at Chateau Genessier, the doctor, Louise and Christiane are having dinner, and we get our first look at the successful heterograft on the maimed young woman's face. She is, of course, beautiful, with huge eyes peering out from her face (her skin is almost as smooth as the mask; after an hour of the film in which Christiane was scarcely seen, just having the actress' face on camera is an amazing effect). The conversation is entirely about what Christiane will do with her new life, and Dr. Genessier winds up saying that she could indeed tell her fiancee Jacques that she is still alive (and has another girl's face); Jacques loves her enough to accept the story and the doctor loves his daughter enough that he's willing to risk exposure and the ruin of the rest of his life if need be.
Dinner is interrupted by a call for Dr. Genessier; he and Louise leave to take care of whatever it was. And while they're out of Christiane's hearing, Louise asks why the doctor was so nervous while examining his daughter. He says he's failed. He's right--his case notes show, with photographic evidence step by step, the deterioration of Christiane's borrowed features. Not quite three weeks after the surgery, the skin from the heterograft is ulcerated and dying; Dr. Genessier has to remove it to save his daughter's life. Which means that Louise has to bring back the porcelain mask that Christiane detests. We also find out what's up with the dogs at the chateau; the doctor is using them for his skin grafting experiments. A pet is for life, people; if you get tired of your dog it might wind up being given the wrong fur by a grieving father trying to repair his daughter's horrible facial trauma. It's probably easier all around to just get a Neopet if you think you won't be able to fully care for a real animal.
Christiane returns to her ethereal existence, but this time she's gotten a taste of hope for the future. She calls Jacques again and this time says his name instead of remaining silent. Now her former fiancee knows that something unnatural is going on. Louise tries to comfort the girl (and is probably the only person who possibly could, being one of Genessier's plastic surgery miracles herself). But Christiane isn't having any of it. She now views herself as one of her father's experimental animals, and feels that she has nothing to look forward to but a succession of painful operations followed by deterioration. And each time her father fails to repair her features, it's going to cost an innocent girl her life. Small wonder she asks Louise to sneak her a lethal dose of the sedatives used on the dogs when they have to be put down.
Jacques, meanwhile, has gone to the police with his own story (which is "I heard a dead girl--or at least a girl everyone thinks is dead--talking to me on the telephone"; by the way, why didn't Joe Meek write a song about that?), and while the detective harangues him about vague descriptions in his case files, it turns out that Jacques knows more than he thought he did--an attractive woman wearing a pearl choker was seen with a girl who has gone missing and Jacques cannot believe it's a coincidence that Christiane's father's nurse is somehow connected with everything that's been going on.
The police decide to get sneaky. Paulette Merodon, a lovely young woman who was caught shoplifting gets press-ganged into Abduction Bait Detail, with the police agreeing to drop the charges against her if she agrees--without being informed of what they're expecting to happen to her--to lighten her hair and wind up in Dr. Genessier's presence. Some coaching about what symptoms to complain about and a hospital visit later, and the doctor now knows of another strikingly attractive young Parisian girl with the right bone structure and eye color right around the time he's looking for another "volunteer". The hospital also features an EEG machine that looks like it's wired to Colossus. I don't have a joke to put here, but I wanted to mention it anyway.
Paulette checks out of the hotel (no charge for a diagnostic EEG in France in 1960, by the way, so the American health care system is fifty-four years behind the civilized world in face-removing mad scientist movies). While walking to the bus she gets offered a ride by an attractive woman with a pearl choker, and because it's a horror movie she gets into the car. Jacques calls to tell the police that Paulette's left the clinic, and in a wonderfully sick transition we go from the detective saying he'll check with Paulette's parents to make sure she got home safe to Dr. Genessier drawing the incision guide on a sedated Paulette's face. Louise interrupts the procedure before anything can happen to tell the doctor that two men are at his clinic asking about him; she leans in to whisper something that I'm choosing to believe is "and they're looking for the girl you've got strapped down and are going to cut the face off of", but in French of course. Genessier doesn't even change out of his mad doctor clothes before leaving; Christiane, suddenly revealed to the audience in a camera pan (another instance of her seemingly ghostlike existence, and a heck of a jump scare), is still in the surgery and wide awake.
The two police ask Genessier whether or not Paulette checked out of the clinic and he immediately looks suspicious as hell by asking how they know she checked out. Genessier is able to show them paperwork that his patient is already gone and has Jacques show the police out; ironically the police and Jacques all agree that it's a wasted effort but the cops both take it very nicely and tell the young doctor not to feel bad, because he was trying to help. Meanwhile Paulette wakes up on the gurney and has a fully justified panicky crying jag. She panicks understandingly when she sees Christiane walk into her field of vision with a scalpel, but the maimed girl cuts her free of the straps on the gurney and then sinks the knife into Louise's throat (through the pearl choker, of course).
The next thing that Christiane does is inevitable by the requirements of the third act of a mad scientist movie; she opens the dog cages and lets all the furiously angry canines out; when Genessier opens the door to his underground lab he is immediately attacked and overwhelmed; naturally, his face is maimed as part of the injuries that claim his life. Christiane lets a flock of thematically relevant birds out of a big expensive cage and walks resolutely into the forest at night while the carnivalesque music swells on the soundtrack.
I've always liked horror movies that take their time getting to the good stuff as long as there's plenty to enjoy on the way, and this one makes such an asset of its languorous pace that the director makes it look easy. Lots of weirdness even from the beginning, but the viewer and the characters on the edge of the story all have to put it together at more or less the same time. And the performances are so restrained that one can easily believe Genessier would be able to get away with his abductions and mutilations indefinitely. It's also very telling that both of the dead victims were not directly at the doctor's hands--he is a kidnapper and a butcher, but not a murderer, at least not directly. He's a very sympathetic monster, doing the most horrible things imaginable as a way to apologize to his daughter because he loves her and because her condition is utterly his fault.
And Edith Scob's performance as Christiane is revelatory. She manages to convey so much with just her posture and eyes--it's a physical tour de force that recalls Joe Morton's mute alien in The Brother From Another Planet in her use of subtlety and in her inability to use one of the actor's basic instruments in her performance. Watching her eyes behind the nearly featureless mask is riveting. And I'm so, so glad the Criterion disc isn't dubbed into English. I can't imagine this one played particularly well when it was released in the States under the regrettable title The Torture Chamber of Dr. Faustus on a double feature with The Manster. And yet the Anglicized title does point out that everyone in the central trio is suffering--the doctor with his guilt, Christiane with hope restored and removes, and Louise as she has to serve as a Judas goat so innocent women can be mutilated. They're monsters all, of one kind of another but they're worth pitying as much as hating.
This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Equinox
Yes, I Know: The Eye